Per S&P+, USC is the 13th best team in college football -- and Washington is 6th. While Washington is the second-best team USC has played, per S&P+, USC is far and away the best team Washington will play all season. Washington is touted as one of the most balanced teams in the country; those squads are usually difficult to stop. Let’s take a look at the numbers to see how USC can win Saturday’s matchup.
What USC can take advantage of on Offense
Of the five factors that the Washington defense struggles with the most, it’s efficiency where they rank 29th in the country — still good, just not great. Thankfully for USC, this is somewhere they excel, ranking 7th in the nation in success rate, as 49.8% of their plays gain at least 50 percent of the yardage on first down, 70 percent on 2nd down, or 100 percent on 3rd down. This becomes extremely important when you look at how Washington is the best defense in the country at limiting explosive plays, and where the USC offense ranks 78th.
Washington especially struggles at limiting efficiency in the run game, where they rank 62nd in the country. USC ranks 25th in run efficiency, an angle the Trojans should look to exploit Saturday. If the running game isn’t working on early downs and USC finds itself in passing downs, there is no need to panic: USC is the 7th-best offense in the country overall and 13th in success rate in those situations. Alternatively, Washington pulls in at 17th overall and 47th in success rate on defense.
Lastly, the Trojans’ offense should preach one thing: patience.. The Washington defense starts at 11th in the country in the 1st quarter and progressively falls to the 64th best defense in the 4th quarter.
What USC has to worry about on defense
The 23rd-ranked USC defense (overall S&P+) has quite the test in going against the 3rd-ranked offense in Washington. While that looks really terrifying at that level, there are some bright spots for the Trojan defense -- and some worrying signs.
The things that bode well for the USC defense are the fact Clancy Pendergast’s outfit has the 13th-best rushing defense, per S&P+, while Washington has the 23rd best rushing offense. Another thing to look out for is if USC is able to force Washington into passing downs. Huskies quarterback Jake Browning has been sacked only 15 times in nine games, but the offense has allowed an adjusted sack that rate ranks 95th in the country overall and 125th on passing downs.
The laundry list of things that are unfavorable for USC is much longer. Washington has the second-best Standard Down offense in the country, third-most explosive offense in the country, the most efficient offense in the country, the second-best offense at finishing drives in the country, and the best turnover margin in the country. Of the Five Factors, the last four points in the previous sentence are four of them. The only one of the Five Factors in which Washington moderately struggles is field position where they rank 29th in the country. USC matches up poorly in all of the 5 factors: ranking 79th in explosiveness, 24th in Success Rate, 23rd in Field position, 74 in finishing drives and 71st in turnover margin. So it seems that if USC is able to win the field position battle and force long drives out of Washington that’s the best hope.
The biggest hope for USC in this game rests with the simple fact that the Trojans are the best team Washington will face all year per S&P+ -- and by 27 spots (Utah sits 40th overall). Skeptics of Washington and equal hopefuls for USC can point to this as being the sign of optimism, but it’s certainly an uphill battle for the Trojans on Saturday.
(stats provided by footballstudyhall.com)
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Saman Djabbari graduated from USC in 2008 and is a weekly contributor to uscfootball.com and co-host of the Traveler Hates Thursdays' podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @samandjabbari.